Summary: This article gives a rundown of judicial elections in Texas: what they are, what positions are up for a vote, and why you should care about them.
Although many states elect at least some of their judges, as of 2020 Texas is one of only six states to run partisan (party-based) elections for all state judicial positions. If you were one of the 17 percent of Texans who voted in the March primary for the 2022 midterm elections, like me you probably encountered several pages of candidates for all sorts of judicial positions in your county and across the state. All kinds of judges, justices—and something called a “justice of the peace”? Some of the candidates were unopposed in their primaries and might even run unopposed in the general election, while other races had 3 or 4 candidates competing. Perhaps the information overload of all these judicial elections is one reason for Texas’s incredibly low primary turnout.
This article is meant to give a basic overview of some of these judicial positions, and to discuss why you should care about them.
First, here’s a basic rundown of the major judicial offices you probably saw:
Supreme Court Justice: One of nine, these justices serve on the “court of last resort” for all civil cases under Texas law. The Texas Supreme Court has largely “discretionary” jurisdiction, which means it can pick and choose what cases it will hear. If a petition for review is denied, the lower-level decision will stay in place.
Criminal Appeals Judge: One of nine, these judges serve on the “court of last resort” for all criminal cases under Texas law. Despite the name, the Court of Criminal Appeals, and not the Texas Supreme Court, is the highest court when it comes to criminal matters. With a notable exception for death penalty cases, like the Texas Supreme Court this court, too, has discretionary jurisdiction.
Court of Appeals Justice: There are 80 Court of Appeals Justices spread over 14 courts around the state. These courts hear most criminal or civil appeals from district or county courts.
District Judge: One of over 400 district judges across the state, these are in many ways the “default” trial judge for most civil and major criminal cases. There may be multiple judicial districts in a county or even one district covering multiple counties.
Criminal District Judge: In some (usually more populated) areas, these judges take over criminal matters for the district judges, leaving them with civil matters.
Family District Judge: In some (usually more populated) areas, these judges take over family law matters (like adoptions, child welfare and custody, marriage and divorce) for the district judges, leaving them with other civil matters.
County Judge: This position is fundamentally different than the others, despite the name. Per the Texas Constitution there is only one official county judge for each county. The county judge does not have to be an attorney, and one of the most important aspects of that job is to preside over the county’s commissioner’s court, which acts as the main governing body for the county. Beyond that, the county judge may have more “traditional” judicial duties to hear certain civil or minor criminal cases. Or, the county judge is allowed to give those judicial duties over to multiple “statutory” county judges.
County Court at Law Judge: In a county where the positions exist, these judges hear disputes that might otherwise be heard by the county judge. They may also hear cases appealed from JP court (see below).
County Criminal Court Judge: In more populated counties where they exist, these judges take over criminal matters for the county court at law judges, leaving them with just civil matters.
County Probate Judge: In more populated counties, these judges specifically hear probate cases (disputes related to wills and estates).
Justice of the Peace: A justice of the peace (“JP”) presides over a “justice court” that hears specific kinds of disputes, including civil suits below $20,000; truancy, traffic, low-level misdemeanor cases; and landlord/tenant disputes. A justice of the peace does not have to be an attorney.
Municipal Judge: Where their positions exist, these judges cover minor criminal matters like justices of the peace, as well cases related to enforcement of city ordinances.
In December 2020, a state commission recommended a host of changes to judicial selections, including ending the election of most judges. Major problems with the current system the commission raised included the fact that the system discouraged judicial independence, a lack of voter knowledge of judicial qualifications, a tendency to produce less qualified judges, and the fact that it creates the perception judges are inherently political. However, the commission could not give a clear recommendation for a new system, and since then Texas has not changed it.
Once you understand the scope of these judicial positions and their powers, it is easy to see how they can affect your life. A judge’s background and qualifications may make a huge difference in how your case is handled. And particularly for those high-level courts that have discretionary jurisdiction, the individual judges can make all the difference in whether a case gets a full hearing at all at that level. Especially with Texas’ low turnout, a tiny minority of voters may have outsized influence on these issues.
At this stage, some things voters can do about this are: become educated on these issues (hence this article), actually vote, and finally, talk to your representatives about the underlying issue of whether judicial elections are right for Texas.